Friday, October 30, 2009

haint blue and the porch

The front porch is an American architectural element with origins in western Africa, brought to the colonies by slaves. The porch as we know it today, and as popularized in "pattern books" in the age of Victoria was added to the southern colonial vernacular plantation house by African craftsmen. Although the "stoa" of ancient Greece and the "portico" of Rome were formal elements used in some European classical traditions, the vernacular buildings of the American colonies - based on vernacular forms of England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, France and others - did not have a "porch" as we know it today.

According to Michael Dolan, Author of "The American Porch", in answer to the question, "What was the most surprising thing that you learned about the American porch?"

A: That the porch as we know it – a social institution -- came from Africa. Pre-colonial Africans built roofed platforms at the fronts of their houses, raised off the ground to keep out insects. Families lived out there, greeted their neighbors, conducted business. One early European visitor likened these structures to stages – he had no other word to use, which suggests how remote the idea of the porch was to Europeans. When Europeans began enslaving Africans and brought them to the New World,the first thing their captives had to do was build their housing. Africans built what they knew; their vernacular architecture traveled with slavery,gradually absorbed by the dominant cultures of the New World. Folklorists Jay Edwards, who’s at Louisiana State University, and John Vlach,who teaches at George Washington University, have shown how the porch came from Africa to Brazil to the Caribbean to North America.

Here's a Queen Anne porch designed by Luther M. Turton in Napa, California in 1892:

Note the sky blue ceiling of the porch. The house had been encased in stucco in about 1930 - and when the stucco was removed in 1991, the original ceiling color was exposed:

Now, having grown up in the south, attending architecture school there, and living amongst the remnants of colonial and plantation era buildings - I never thought twice about a sky blue porch ceiling. Porch ceilings seemed to almost always be blue. In college was the first time I heard the expression "haint blue" describing a porch ceiling. A friend's mother had grown up in Charleston, SC and referred to a ceiling as "haint blue". The African American language spoken in the "low country" of coastal South Carolina is called "gullah". "Haint" was explained as "haunt" or spirit -- and the story went that porch ceilings and wide overhangs on the exteriors of homes were painted a sky blue so that "haints", "haunts" or spirits would think they were the sky and pass right on through. This kept spirits from haunting or lingering around the home. There is no official "haint blue" color. The intent was to fool the spirits.

Obviously in 1892, in Napa, California, the African tradition was honored even though the basis of the tradition was never known.

Happy Halloween!

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Oak Knoll, Oak Alley

The practice of historical architecture provides access to some places not usually seen from the "public right of way". Where would you suppose this house is located?

... You would be wrong. This is not Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana, pictured below with a clip from their website. This is a grand Victorian mansion (first built in the 1870's) in Napa County's Oak Knoll District. The house was altered in 1949 to replicate the 1837 Oak Alley Plantation - and quite successfully at that. The Victorian tower, porches and "gingerbread" were removed, the porches expanded, and the hipped roof altered. Even the dormers were added. The setting is on a true "Oak Knoll", with the drive curving through a natural savanna studded with 70 to 80 mature valley white oaks (quercus lobata). The stand of valley white oaks is the largest and oldest I have seen yet in Napa County, with most of the trees appearing to be hundreds of years old. All of the owners of this ranch since the 1800's have refrained from cutting the oaks and planting grapes, prunes, walnuts or any of the cash crops grown in the Napa Valley since the 1840's.

Oak Alley Plantation has an equally distinctive allee of 28 live oaks lining the walk to the river - the Mississippi River. The trees may have been planted in about 1710. The link above is to some photos of the trees taken by "Larry" - a member of the Louisiana Native Tree Society.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Love, tissue

For two months this summer we had a boomerang kid living at home and working at Trader Joe's. One of the delightful work stories was about a little girl riding in the grocery cart seat and clutching a box of tissues. She was excited and sparkling and told my daughter, "we got some love, tissues!"

The little girl then went on to quote all the messages on the tissue box. She was too young to read, but had memorized the box.

We love our Trader Joe's almost as much as the little girl loves her "love, tissues". An unofficial commercial for Trader Joe's:

And after a long day at the store, birthday dinner and three layer carrot birthday cake!

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